Rick (Christian Bale) is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, while successful in his career, his life feels empty. Haunted and confused, he finds temporary solace in the decadent Hollywood excess that defines his existence. Women provide a distraction to his daily pain, and every encounter brings him closer to finding his place in the world.
Knight of Cups is Terrence Malick’s par for the course. If you’re familiar with his work of the contemplative Tree of Life and Voyage of Time, you know what you’re in for. Those seeking an artistic collage of visuals, music and whispers of philosophical ramblings will be served the deep art they so greatly desire. The viewer that never got Malick’s non-narrative shifting of ideas and space will be scratching their heads in bitter confusion.
Malick sets the stage for Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter seeking solace in the pleasures of Hollywood while being haunted by his family. He sets up chapters in which Rick encounters different characters (Antonio Banderas, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy) in his search to find himself. In traditional Malick fashion, we watch his adventure more as voyeurs. Most of the dialogue is either inaudible or washed out by character narration, lamenting on where life will take Rick and comprehending one’s place in the universe. In other words, the usual Malick themes and treatment.
Trying to review Malick’s latest film is no easy task as it requires self-examination. Very little is spelled out for the viewer, keeping the structure beautifully cryptic, acting as though were inside the head of the characters with the visuals being a secondary constant in their life. It’s a picture that asks the audience to question themselves as well, floating whispering ideas that have haunted man in every aspect of life, echoing that of our own.
Yes, this is all very artistic and out there, but how much of a stretch is this for Malick? I hate to compare this picture with his previous masterpiece Tree of Life, but he uses so many of the same tools that I couldn’t help but draw comparisons. And it’s a pale comparison at that. Tree of Life took us on a voyage through all of time, from dinosaurs to childbirth to the cosmos. Knight of Cups mostly relegates the viewer to the comfy and glamorous lifestyles of a screenwriter living the high life. He ambles around open office spaces, posh parties, model photoshoots and fancy strip clubs. Ever so often Malick will take us out of the urban sprawl to find a bit of a nature, as if to break up the meaninglessness of Rick partying with lovely ladies and loads of drugs.
In one sense, I admire that Malick is attempting to make these higher budget art films with big names willing to lend their talents to something more than popcorn entertainment. But is he challenging us or just going back to his old tricks with less depth? He certainly doesn’t give anything all that unique for Bale to do, hiding him behind his gruff whisperings, innocent ambling and crass cackling. I know that Bale can pull off a nuanced performance of a rather deep individual as when he played the sinister yuppie of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. But he feels slightly underused in the role of a character that is constantly lost in thought and struggling to make sense of this strange existence.
Knight of Cups had admirable goals of comprehending the meaning of life, but feels limited in scope when sanctioned to the life of a partying screenwriter. The focus on one character with little to no character development amid rambling passages of philosophy takes away from the grander scheme of human existence. Malick took us to the cosmos and allowed us room to think with Tree of Life. Knight of Cups pins us to the Earth and makes us listen to long stretches of narration, using his usual methods of contemplation. Though maintaining his trademark style, I still miss the stars.